English Painting Practice reconciling documentary evidence and technical analysis

Tarnya Cooper, Curator, sixteenth-century collections, National Portrait Gallery

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

This paper looked at the fragmentary documentary evidence for the practice of making portraits in sixteenth century England and considered how we can begin to interpret evidence from technical analysis alongside written sources.
Sixteenth century British paintings were for the most part not originally perceived as art objects, but instead performed non-aesthetic tasks in the lives of individuals and institutions. Painted images, and more specially portraiture served functions varying from the personal and the political, to religious, diplomatic and morally instructive, rather than purely decorative or aesthetic. Information about the way paintings have changed over time is rarely part of the agenda in the interpretation of paintings within a museum or gallery context. Yet an understanding of the past physical 'lives' of sixteenth century painted wooden panels is important to their interpretation. This is because panel pictures have frequently been over painted or retouched at a later date, sometimes, from as early as the mid seventeenth century, and regularly thereafter. Occasionally Tudor pictures might be entirely replicated. For example, the audiences of Tudor portraits in the centuries following their production the importance of the sitter and the 'displayability' of the image mattered more than the authenticity of the original. Consequently, when a Tudor image suffered from unsightly damage, a new, near identical copy might be made centuries later as a replica to hang in its place (see for example the portrait of Bishop Richard Foxe NPG 5387 dating from the eighteenth century and a damaged sixteenth century picture of the same sitter, NPG 874).

Documentary sources concerning artistic practice in this period are extremely limited, particularly for artists working outside court environment. Yet some information about the extent of production is available in the limited records of for example, the Painter Stainers Company in London, in records of court payments and in wills of Tudor citizens. Records reveal that more than two hundred painters must have practiced in and around the city of London in the later sixteenth century and that these painters were undertaking a range of different types of work including portraiture, decorative painting and ephemeral work, such as banners, flags and temporary sets for entertainments. In the period 1500-1620 only thirty nine men who describe themselves as 'painters' or 'painter-stainers' had their wills proved at the Probate Court of Canterbury, where the threshold for inclusion was an estate valued at over five pounds. All but two of these painters were based in London, and several appear to be foreign émigrés. In contrast, during the same period PCC records exist for approximately 1048 tailors, 306 goldsmiths, 166 carpenters, 152 ironmongers, 92 glovers, 45 armourers, and even 45 labours.

One of the many areas where technical analysis can provide new evidence for understanding artistic production is the identification of underdrawing. Evidence concerning drawing practice and the transfer of designs to full scale painted images is scarce for English artists in this period. With the exception of the artists Hans Holbein, Nicholas Hilliard, Issac Oliver and Inigo Jones, very few drawings by English artists working in the period 1500-1620 remain in existence today. Is this an indication of how infrequently English painters used preparatory drawings to develop their compositions, or a case of the very limited survival and lack of appreciation of artists drawings or studio books? It is hard to imagine that English artists were able to produce portraits without a least a careful study of the sitters head or a pattern from a study. It is possible that Elizabethan and Jacobean portrait painters may thereafter, worked up the remainder of the composition without the need for newly made preliminary drawings, relying instead on practiced formulas or even patterns of stock features such as hands or the presence of actual items of the sitter's costume in the studio which were borrowed for the purpose. The technology of Infrared reflectography reveals various different types of under drawings beneath the painted surface of the oil paint and more work is needed to interpret these drawings. From the limited evidence collated so far from Infrared reflectography on around fifteen panels produced in the period 1505-1570 we have seen carefully transferred drawing (apparently using a cartoon) and what appears to be either a tracing or freehand drawing copying an established pattern, as well as more expressive, energetic free hand drawing very loosely laying in the initial composition. We have also detected red chalk under drawing via microscopy. We hope that further evidence from practices in the decorative arts and the collation of the NPG results with a wider body of comparative data from other collections will reveal broader patterns in artistic production at this date.